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Teletubbies

 

 

          It was unbearably hot.  I left my son at the neighborhood hairdresser’s for a cut and went into the nearest bar.

          I sat down on a stool at the bar.  The waitress put down her newspaper and stood up.

          “Can I help you.

          “Do you have any imported vodka, Smirnoff, Finlandia?” I asked, looking for a stray bottle in the back of the shelf above the bar.

          “We have only these – neighborhood drinks,” the waitress said.  Which meant cheap local cognac, brandy, bitters, white wine and soda, and beer.

          I decided to order an Ozujsko beer.  “I’ll bring you a cold one from the cooler,” she said, and left the room.

          I remained in the barely air-conditioned dimness with a customer, obviously from the neighborhood, two stools away from me.  His back was leaning against the bar, and he was watching a game on the little dusty greasy television that hung from the ceiling.  I pulled a case out of my pocket, got out my glasses and put them on.  I opened the Evening News, establishing my private space.

          “So the little one’s under the lawn mower?”

          I carefully raised my eyes.  His face was odd, I didn’t know exactly why.

          At that moment the waitress returned with the cold beer.  I poured a glass and took a sip.  The waitress went back to her newspaper.  I followed her example.

          “KIDNAPPERS CAPTURED – GIRL FREED,” read one headline.

          “The idiots, they were asking for only 25,000 Euros,” said the waitress.  I realized that we were reading the same page of the same paper.  “And then they settled for 22,000,” I added.

          “Teletubbies,” said the customer.

          Like Dr. Evil,” I said.  “In Austin Powers…?”

          Silence.

          “That part when he asks for only a million dollars not to destroy the world,” I tried to explain.  For a brief moment I imagined that my son was kidnapped, pissing his pants and tied up in some warehouse, and that they wanted 1700 kunas ransom from me.

          “Teletubbies,” laughed the waitress, continuing to leaf through her paper.  “Eh, Red, my friend…”

          She stopped on the page with the TV guide.  “Hey, Croatia’s playing Portugal right now!  They’re in the second half!”

          Portugal’s ahead 1 to 0.  End of the second half.”  Red was evidently well-informed.

          I raised my eyes.  On the green background, tiny brightly-dressed dung-beetles fought over a slippery white sphere, trying to tuck it away into a four-sided nest.

          “That means we’re out of the semi-finals,” I said, demonstrating my rudimentary acquaintance with the rules of soccer, and a certain degree of identification with our team.

          “Not if we win,” said Red.

          “Not very likely.”

          At that moment a Croatian dung-beetle landed the ball in the Portuguese nest.  By the rules of soccer, that was a good thing.

          “Now it’s a bit more likely,” said Red.

          His face was exceptionally asymmetrical.  One eye was lively, it widened and narrowed depending on the contents of the conversation, while the other was still and kept watching me coolly.  I had the sense that I was being watched by two different people at the same time.

          “Do you want Croatia to win?”

          I was caught off guard by this question.  I was sure that it was quite all the same to me.  But in this situation, seeing “our guys” play in real time, here in this neighborhood milieu, with me and “my” two co-viewers tensely watching little Suker gallop as he proudly advanced “our” cause on an alien lawn, the precious pellet…

          “Well, actually, yes,” I said.

          “And how much is it worth to you?” asked Red.

          It was all clear to me.  A barroom bet.

          “If Croatia wins, I buy the drinks,” I said.  “But if we lose…”

          “In that case, you don’t pay for anything.”

          “But you’ll buy me a drink, right?”

          “Not at all,” said Red.

          “That’s not really fair.  The outcome is uncertain – why should I be the only one who takes a risk?”

          “It’s not a bet, sir,” said Red.  “It’s payment for my services.”

          “So, for a double shot of bitters you’ll fix it so that Croatia beats Portugal?”

          “Exactly.”

          “Give the gentleman a double bitter,” I said to the waitress.

          “No need to pay until the job is done,” said Red.

          Suker got closer and closer to the Portuguese nest.  But two dark-skinned dung-beetles were blocking his path, and “our” guy decided to make a desperate shot.  The ball flew over the heads of his opponents, but it was clear that it would pass over the nest by a couple of inches.

          Red took a drag on his cigarette and blew smoke at the television.

          The flags over the stadium suddenly blew stiff, one snapped off its pole.  A cloud of trash rose from the seats – cigarette butts, popcorn, plastic cups.  A strong wind had come up.  The ball suddenly changed direction and landed in the upper right-hand corner of the nest.  Everyone was on their feet.

          A trumpet sounded the end of the match.  We won!

          “Congratulations,” I said.  “A double bitter for Mr. Red, lord of the universe.”  I lifted my glass of beer to him, took a drink, and looked at the clock.  How long did it take to cut a kid’s hair?  Half an hour?  I decided to check what was happening at the salon.

          “Check please,” I said.

          “That’ll be 20 kunas,” said the waitress.

          While I was taking the money out, the television began a generic detergent ad, some woman taking extra-white laundry out of the machine, much whiter than the stuff they had washed with the unnamed other detergent.  An idea wouldn’t leave me alone.

          “Come on, make her pull a dead cat out of the machine,” I said.

          “Wouldn’t work,” said Red.  “This was shot who knows when, a month or a year ago.”

          “That means, it only flies for a live broadcast?”

          “For the most part.”

          “Then why haven’t you bought a lottery ticket and won the jackpot?  The drawings are live, right?  Doris and her little balls?”

          “Too many balls.  And all going around in that damn drum, millions of collisions every second…  And now you try to make 27 come out.  Impossible..  Three, maybe four balls, that could work.  But a hundred…”

          The ad ended without incident.  The local news was beginning, live from the market stands on Tresnjevka Square.  Seeing the camera, the market women started nervously concealing their smuggled goods.

          A policeman came into the bar, wearing that slightly different kind of uniform that suggests a higher rank.  He looked us over and came over to me.  “Are you the father of a little boy?”

          “Yes?” I said.

          “He was kidnapped ten minutes ago.  Do you have any idea who…”

          I ran outside and over to the salon, pushing through the “ordinary” policemen.  “Where’s my son?” I roared.

          “He said he knew where to find his dad,” said pale hairdresser #1.

          “…That his dad would be in the bar,” confirmed pale hairdresser #2.

          I ran out of the hair salon and took a look around.  The neighborhood was dirty and deserted.

          “The girls saw two men pull him into an automobile and drive away,” said the main policeman, who had in the mean time emerged from the bar.  Preep, preep," chirped his walkie-talkie.  Compared to a cell phone, the apparatus was incredibly big and clumsy, with a thick rubber antenna.  For some time he listened to the incomprehensible rustling.  “To your positions,” he said in the end.

          “So?” I asked.

          “A patrol has located an automobile that matches the description.  Reinforcements are on the way.”

          “Come here, sir,” called the waitress.  I went back into the bar.

          The greasy little screen showed, between the market stands, a little light-blue Audi 4 that had evidently crashed into a cement flower urn.  The blue light of a patrol car stopped on Sarengrad street flashed in the background.  The kidnappers were hiding behind the Audi.  You could see clearly that one was staring through the glass and the other was holding a pistol to my son’s head.

          “Teletubbies,” said Red.

          I looked at him in complete incomprehension.

          “They’ve got plastic pistols,” he explained.

          The camera zoomed back from the Audi and shifted to a confused neighborhood reporter.  “The police forces are left in pat position…” he babbled.  A tiny man with a tiny rifle crawled onto the blue tin roof of a building in the background.

          “Falcon One, at my signal,” the main policeman said into his walkie-talkie.

          The tiny man froze.  The tiny rifle was pointing at the Audi.

          “He could miss and hit someone else,” said Red.

          The camera zoomed back in on the Audi.  The guy holding my son decided to make a break.  He ran off, dragging him behind.

          “Falcon One…” said the policeman.

          I turned and kicked him in the shin, with all my strength.  He folded up on the floor and hit his head on the edge of the bar.  The walkie-talkie rolled off into a corner.  You could hear it make an urgent interrogative rustling.

          My son tore loose from the kidnapper and ran into the first entryway.  Plock, plock,” a patrolman shot into the air.  The kidnapper threw down his plastic pistol and put his hands up.

          “Unnnng…,” said the policeman on the floor, gradually regaining consciousness.  I gathered up my things, glasses, the newspaper.  “What do I owe you?”

          “You’re already paid up,” said the waitress.

          I pulled out 20 kunas and put them on the bar.  “And a double for Red.”

Davor Slamnig, 2004.

Translated by Sibelan Forrester

 

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